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American FolkloreAMERICAN LORE & LEGENDS

The Passing Of Peg-Leg

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By Andy Adams in 1906

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Sangre de Cristo MountainsIn the early part of September, '91, the eastern overland express on the Denver and Rio Grande was held up and robbed at Texas Creek. The place is little more than a watering-station on that line, but it was an inviting place for hold-ups.

 

Surrounded by the front range of the Rockies, Peg-Leg Eldridge and his band selected this lonely station as best fitted for the transaction in hand. To the southwest lay the Sangre de Cristo Range, in which the band had rendezvoused and planned this robbery. Farther to the southwest arose the snow-capped peaks of the Continental Divide, in whose silent solitude an army might have taken refuge and hidden.

 

It was an inviting country to the robber. These mountains offered retreats that had never known the tread of human footsteps. Emboldened by the thought that pursuit would be almost a matter of impossibility, they laid their plans and executed them without a single hitch.

 

About ten o'clock at night, as the train slowed up as usual to take water, the engineer and fireman were covered by two of the robbers. The other two -- there were only four -- cut the express car from the train, and the engineer and fireman were ordered to decamp.

 

The robbers ran the engine and express car out nearly two miles, where, by the aid of dynamite, they made short work of a safe that the messenger could not open. The express company concealed the amount of money lost to the robbers, but smelters, who were aware of certain retorts in transit by this train, were not so silent. These smelter products were in gold retorts of such a size that they could be made away with as easily as though they had reached the mint and been coined.

 

There was scarcely any excitement among the passengers, so quickly was it over. While the robbery was in progress the wires from this station were flashing the news to headquarters. At a division of the railroad one hundred and fifty-six miles distant from the scene of the robbery, lived United States Marshal Bob Banks, whose success in pursuing criminals was not bounded by the state in which he lived. His reputation was in a large measure due to the successful use of bloodhounds. This officer's calling compelled him to be both plainsman and mountaineer. He had the well-deserved reputation of being as unrelenting in the pursuit of criminals as death is in marking its victims.

 

Within half an hour after the robbery was reported at headquarters, an engine had coupled to a caboose at the division where the marshal lived. He was equally hasty. To gather his arms and get his dogs aboard the caboose required but a few moments' time.

 

Everything ready, they pulled out with a clear track to their destination. Heavy traffic in coal had almost ruined the road-bed, but engine and caboose flew over it regardless of its condition. Halfway to their destination the marshal was joined by several officials, both railway and express. From there the train turned westward, up the valley of the Arkansas. Here was a track and an occasion that gave the most daring engineer license to throw the throttle wide open.

 

The climax of this night's run was through the Grand Canon of the Arkansas River. Into this gash in the earth's surface plunged the engineer, as though it were an easy stretch of down-grade prairie. As the engine rounded turns, the headlight threw its rays up serried columns of granite half a mile high -- columns that rear their height in grotesque form and Gothic arch, polished by the waters of ages.

 

As the officials agreed, after a full discussion with the marshal of every phase and possibility of capture, the hope of this night's work and the punishment of the robbers rested almost entirely on three dogs lying on the floor, and, as the rocking of the car disturbed them, growling in their dreams. In their helplessness to cope with this outrage, they turned to these dumb animals as a welcome ally.

 

  

 

 

Marshall Pass in 1880

Denver and Rio Grande Railroad in Colorado, 1898.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!

 

Under the guidance of their master they were an aid whose value he well understood. Their sense of smell was more reliable than the sense of seeing in man. You can believe the dog when you doubt your own eyes. His opinion is unquestionably correct.

 

As the train left the canon it was but a short run to the scene of the depredation. During the night the few people who resided at this station were kept busy getting together saddle-horses for the officer's posse. This was not easily done, as there were few horses at the station, while the horses of near-by ranches were turned loose in the open range for the night. However, upon the arrival of the train, Banks and the express people found mounts awaiting them to carry them to the place of the hold-up.

 

After the robbers had finished their work during the fore part of the night, the train crew went out and brought back to the station the engine and express car.

 

The engine was unhurt, but the express car was badly shattered, and the through safe was ruined by the successive charges of dynamite that were used to force it to yield up its treasure. The local safe was unharmed, the messenger having opened it in order to save it from the fate of its larger and stronger brother. The train proceeded on its way, with the loss of a few hours' time and the treasure of its express.

 

Day was breaking in the east as the posse reached the scene. The marshal lost no time circling about until the trail leaving was taken up. Even the temporary camp of the robbers was found in close proximity to the chosen spot. The experienced eye of this officer soon determined the number of men, though they led several horses. It was a cool, daring act of Peg-Leg and three men. Afterward, when his past history was learned, his leadership in this raid was established.

 

Peg-Leg Eldridge was a product of that unfortunate era succeeding the Civil War. During that strife the herds of the southwest were neglected to such an extent that thousands of cattle grew to maturity without ear-mark or brand to identify their owner. A good mount of horses, a rope and a running-iron in the hands of a capable man, were better than capital. The good old days when an active young man could brand annually fifteen calves--all better than yearlings--to every cow he owned, are looked back to this day, from cattle king to the humblest of the craft, in pleasant reminiscence, though they will come no more. Eldridge was of that time, and when conditions changed, he failed to change with them. This was the reason that, under the changed condition of affairs, he frequently got his brand on some other man's calf. This resulted in his losing a leg from a gunshot at the hands of a man he had thus outraged.

 

Worse, it branded him for all time as a cattle thief, with every man's hand against him. Thus the steps that led up to this September night were easy, natural, and gradual. This child of circumstances, a born plainsman like the Indian, read in plain, forest, and mountain, things which were not visible to other eyes.

 

 

Continued Next Page

Branding cattle

Branding cattle in 1891.

This image available for photographic prints HERE!

 

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